- Mechelle Voepel, espnW.com
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Los Angeles guard Kristi Toliver always has had that one particular grin on court that makes me think of a little kid who just grabbed two extra cookies when nobody was watching.
It's not obnoxious or mocking or dastardly. It's just … well, I guess you could call it mildly, mischievously gleeful. Like, "Ha! Threaded that pass!" or "Hee hee! Nailed that shot!"
Whenever Toliver was having a good time on the court, you could tell. Conversely, when she was not happy, that was pretty obvious, too. But the even-keeled Kristi -- the one who has become more and more reliable for her competitive consistency, whether her shots are dropping -- actually is a regular presence these days.
Which is terrific for a Sparks team that now also has one of the top "true" point guards in the league in Lindsey Harding, who in February signed with L.A. as a free agent.
"She's a great catch-and-shoot player, and hopefully as I keep learning and growing with this team, I can help make her even better at that," Harding said of Toliver. "She's a natural scorer, I enjoy playing with her."
Those two join guard/forward Alana Beard and post players Candace Parker and Nneka Ogwumike in L.A.'s starting lineup. The Sparks are perfect so far in July (5-0) and put an emphatic end to their so-called road woes with back-to-back victories at Tulsa and Phoenix. This week, the Sparks host Atlanta on Wednesday and Phoenix on Thursday (ESPN2, 10 p.m. ET).
Harding played the past two years in Atlanta. Her presence in L.A. hasn't completely removed Toliver from all point guard duties. But it has made it easier for Toliver to excel at the "combo" part of what is actually her best position: combo guard.
"It's always nice to have another ball handler, another person who can create and take a load off of me so I don't have to do that all the time," Toliver said of Harding. "Doing that, though, was something I embraced for the good of the team, and I would always embrace it.
"But I'm happy I'm able to go back to being a combo, because that's naturally who I am. She's definitely been a great addition, not just for me, but for everybody."
Toliver is averaging 15.1 points and 3.7 assists, numbers that are a bit lower than last year, when she was named the WNBA's most improved player. But she's not concerned about the stats, knowing it's because Harding (12.8 ppg, 5.5 apg) has picked up some of that.
Sparks coach Carol Ross likes the increased versatility Harding has allowed for Toliver. But Ross doesn't think that means Toliver has to toss away all of her point guard mentality, nor does she want her to.
"Kristi really came to embrace the [point guard] position last year, and it was a lot of work," Ross said. "We try to run a lot of movement, where she ends up with the ball where she is comfortable.
"She's not a stereotypical point guard, for sure. She is what we think of as a shooting guard, and she fills that role well. But she doesn't want to be boxed into the idea that she's just one or the other."
Actually, four of the Sparks' five starters have experience at running the point, even Parker. In transition, she can certainly direct the offense and handle the ball. But Parker definitely appreciates the dynamic now in the Sparks' backcourt.
"Lindsey is great with the ball in her hands. She's able to make plays and be the floor general," Parker said. "Kristi can play point, but she's better for us when she's coming off screens and off second ball reversal.
"And we know the lane will be more open with Kristi out there, because she's such a great shooter. Defenses are not going to help off of her; they can't afford to."
Harding and Beard, the Duke graduates, were praised as great defenders even back in their college days. They've maintained that as pros. But when she was at Maryland, and even into the early part of her WNBA career, Toliver was not considered a really dependable defensive player.
That has changed. Toliver was aware of her flaws on that end of the court and was determined to improve. Having Ross -- the longtime college coach was always respected for her teams' defensive prowess -- as a mentor has helped Toliver.
"She loves the game and has such gifts on the offensive end," Ross said. "But she's really become very complete. She's not a liability on the defensive side of the ball."
Harding seconded that, saying of Toliver, "She knows she is gifted and talented offensively, but she wants to be better defensively and really does work hard at it."
With each successful season for Toliver, the May 2010 trade that sent her to L.A. from Chicago for a 2011 second-round draft pick (Angie Bjorklund) looks even more horrifically bad for the Sky. Sparks general manager Penny Toler got an unbelievable steal. Mention the trade to Toliver … and there's that grin.
"I'm very mindful of that," Toliver said. "When I came here, Penny gave me the opportunity to be who I am. That's how this evolved. I've learned from the veterans that we've had here, and now I'm in the front seat. It feels good to be here."
And having Harding there with her has been a really good fit for the Sparks.
"I'm proud of how they play off of each other," Parker said, "and how we play with them."